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Justice official to plead the Fifth in attorney probe

Story Highlights

• NEW: Justice official Monica Goodling's lawyer compares probe to Libby case
• Goodling refuses to answer questions about attorney firings at Justice
• Letter: Unnamed Justice official blames her for not telling pertinent facts
• White House says decision shows how investigation has become political
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Justice Department official will refuse to answer questions during a Senate committee hearing on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, citing her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself, her lawyer said Monday.

The official, Monica Goodling, will not testify because senators have already decided that wrongdoing occurred, said Goodling's attorney in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Goodling is a senior counsel and White House liaison to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has been under pressure to resign after the firings. She is taking a leave of absence from the department. (The woman behind the story Video)

"The public record is clear that certain members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have already reached conclusions about the matter under investigation and the veracity of the testimony provided by the Justice Department to date," said Goodling's lawyer John Dowd in the letter to committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

The letter said Goodling learned that an unidentified senior Justice Department official has blamed her and other Justice Department officials for any misleading statements the unnamed official had made to Sen. Charles Schumer. Schumer is a New York Democrat who has pushed for answers about the firings.

The unnamed official was "not entirely candid" and blamed Goodling and others for not telling "pertinent facts," Dowd's letter to Leahy said.

"The potential for legal jeopardy for Ms. Goodling from even her most truthful and accurate testimony under these circumstances is very real. One need look no further than the recent circumstances and proceedings involving Lewis Libby," Dowd's letter said. (Watch why Goodling took the Fifth Video)

A federal jury this month convicted Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, of perjury, obstruction and lying to federal agents investigating the 2003 disclosure of a CIA operative's identity. His lawyers have said they plan to appeal the verdict.

White House: 'It's unfortunate'

The White House said Goodling's decision to take the Fifth shows how political the investigation has become.

"It is unfortunate that a public servant no longer feels comfortable that they will be treated fairly in testimony in front of Congress," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

"The attorney general, with the president's support, has urged members of the Justice Department to cooperate with Congress' request for testimony," Perino said. "However, we must respect the constitutional rights of the people involved and the decision of those individuals and their counsel to protect those rights."

The committee has subpoenaed Goodling to testify Thursday. Democratic and Republican senators have raised questions about the firings.

E-mail released last week by the Justice Department suggests the firings may have been politically motivated.

Democrats said they continue to want Goodling to testify.

"It is disappointing that Ms. Goodling has decided to withhold her important testimony from the committee as it pursues its investigation into this matter, but everybody has the constitutional right not to incriminate themselves with regard to criminal conduct," Leahy said in a written statement. "The American people are left to wonder what conduct is at the base of Ms. Goodling's concern that she may incriminate herself in connection with criminal charges if she appears before the committee under oath."

The leader of the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, said Goodling's decision to plead the Fifth "raises even more questions concerning the potential misconduct and legal violations by the administration in this ongoing scandal."

Gonzales under fire

Partially due to conflicting accounts of how the firings were carried out, Gonzales has come under increasing political pressure. A growing number of lawmakers are calling for his resignation. (View a timeline of the firing of the U.S. attorneys)

Gonzales has said he had a limited role in last year's firings, which have triggered a dispute between Congress and the White House over the testimony of top presidential aides. After his chief of staff's resignation in the firings uproar, the attorney general told reporters he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on."

But documents released Friday night show Gonzales attended a meeting in late November in which the firings were discussed. Justice Department officials said that meeting does not contradict Gonzales' previous statements that he was not involved in the details of the dismissals or in selecting specific prosecutors -- a task he said was left to his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.

President Bush continues to stand by his attorney general and expressed confidence in him in a White House statement Friday. (Watch how the president shows no signs of backing away from his attorney general Video)

Sampson expected to defend firing

Sampson is scheduled to testify on the attorney firings at a committee hearing on Thursday.

In response to Goodling's decision, Sampson's attorney, Bradford Berenson, issued a statement, saying, "Kyle plans to testify fully, truthfully, and publicly."

But in his written statement, Berenson also said that testifying on Capitol Hill is not without risks.

"Hearings in a highly politicized environment like this can sometimes become a game of gotcha, but Kyle has decided to trust the Congress and the process," Berenson's statement read. (Read more about Sampson's role and his expected testimony)

Sampson was the key Justice Department official in charge of deciding who should be dismissed and the main liaison with the White House over the process. Gonzales has said that Sampson was "charged with directing the process."

CNN's Kevin Bohn and Dana Bash contributed to this report.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was criticized by several Republican senators over the weekend.



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